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In the Wake of Social Protests, Colleges and Universities Hire Chief Diversity Officers

In the wake of ongoing protests, followed by a string of police brutality cases against unarmed Black men and women in 2020, colleges and universities began spotlighting racial injustices on their campuses.

Although perhaps not directly prompted by the summer’s protests, higher ed institutions also began hiring chief diversity officers in droves to help address diversity, equity and inclusion – and other related matters – on campus.

John StrongJohn Strong

John Strong was appointed chief diversity and equity officer (CDEO) at Niagara County Community College in New York, which is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.

SUNY had agreed that its campuses needed diversity officers in 2016, Strong said, but the responsibilities of such officers were placed on other people, such as a vice president for human resources.

However, after the protests of summer 2020, NCCC created an official chief diversity officer position, with Strong appointed as the school’s first in August.

Since starting, Strong has implemented NCCC’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) plan and helped create the school’s hub for DEI resources – such as course listings and clubs – and a monthly calendar that includes guest speakers.

Under his tenure, NCCC is also working to improve relations between its community and law enforcement, emulating the Peaceful Guardians Project from Kingston, New York, Strong said.

NCCC plans to partner with its neighbor Niagara University for this venture, Strong said.

“What we’re hoping to do is have both of our institutions collaborate with town police, Niagara Falls City Police, state troopers, county police, all levels of law enforcement so that we can say, ‘These are the expectations of the public. These are the expectations of law enforcement. There are the ways that we can collaborate in that path and bring us to a far better environment within which law enforcement gets to work and students get to attend their respective colleges,’” Strong said.

Educating campuses on matters of DEI remains important work. Dr. MarTeze Hammonds, the first chief diversity officer at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said he planned to focus on doing that work in his first few months at the job.

Dr. MarTeze HammondsDr. MarTeze Hammonds

Hammonds began in his cabinet-level role, reporting directly to Purdue Fort Wayne’s president, in December and is currently working on a campus-wide diversity plan for the school, he said. He’s spent his time listening and assessing the campus vision for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Hammonds has prior experience in this realm, having served in similar roles as associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Arkansas Tech University and assistant dean of students for retention and academic engagement at the College of Wooster.

“The campus-wide diversity plan is a comprehensive diversity plan that will intentionally address campus-wide diversity initiatives in four areas: student success, faculty success, staff success and community engagement,” Hammonds wrote in an email. “The Diversity Plan is designed to align with and contribute to the university strategic plan (specifically the university aspiration–Embrace Diversity, Equity and Inclusion). This plan will be a guide for our campus collectively to move the DEI needle.”

He intends for the diversity plan to be fully implemented by fall 2021.

“I am creating a structure for the office of diversity, equity and inclusion and really educating the campus on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Hammonds said. “Creating a common knowledge and a starting point for each of us as we move forward is huge for the work that I do. And then, most definitely supporting the staff, faculty and students who attend here in any way, shape, form or fashion, so that I am helping to eliminate systemic barriers.”

Albion College alumna Keena Williams has been appointed to a cabinet-level position at her alma mater. She heads the school’s new Office of Belonging as its chief belonging officer and Title IX coordinator.

Promoted in August from associate dean and president’s special adviser for global diversity in the Office of Intercultural Affairs, she will work toward “belonging,” which goes beyond diversity, equity and inclusion, according to Albion President Dr. Mathew Johnson.

“Belonging is not just about what we think of classically in diversity terms around race and ethnicity,” Johnson said. “Belonging is about gender. It’s about sexual orientation. It’s about disability rights. It’s about any “ism” that disadvantages one person over the others [and] is a problem.”

William’s job entails shifting Albion’s culture to one in which everybody is responsible and accountable for working toward a campus of belonging, she said.

Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE), said that the organization does not have specific data on whether a surge of diversity officers occurred after the racial unrest from last summer.

However, she said that, at least anecdotally, the organization has seen an increase in inaugural chief diversity officer positions in higher ed, usually at the cabinet level and reporting to a president, chancellor or provost.

At Cabrini University in Pennsylvania, Sherrise Rowe has taken up a different but related diversity role as director of alumni engagement for DEI.

In the position – she’s been at Cabrini for approximately three years in other roles – she is involved with alumni of color and LGBTQ+ alumni, encouraging them to give back to Cabrini and also share their experiences.

She started in October and has since hosted monthly meetings with diverse alumni to offer a convening space and has been working on a DEI task force.

“I’ve done a lot of work making sure that we highlight, or basically that a lot of our minority student groups are being represented in regards to fundraising and the different activities and events,” Rowe said. “One of my big focuses, what I would love to continue to see in this program, is that students get some type of internship or mentorship through the connections with our alumni.”

Someone else stepping into another inaugural DEI role is Dr. Wanda Heading-Grant, who starts at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) as its first Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer in April.

In the role, she will also oversee its Office of Title IX Initiatives and its Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion.

Heading-Grant will report to the provost and serve on his senior leadership team as well as work with the CMU leadership, including the president, vice presidents, deans and other vice provosts.

Dr. Wanda Heading-GrantDr. Wanda Heading-Grant

Currently, Heading-Grant is vice president for DEI at University of Vermont. Heading-Grant said she intended to create a framework, a blueprint of sorts, for where CMU would like to end up in terms of inclusive excellence.

Recruitment and retention of Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) staff and faculty are priorities of hers, and so is creating a welcoming climate that keeps such hires at CMU.

She also wants to assess what services and supports CMU offers.

“I’m very interested to learn more about what’s happening in the interfaith community, around women and students of color and especially students of color in LGBTQ+ community and what is there in terms of supporting them,” Heading-Grant said. “I want to learn, are there gender-inclusive restrooms? Do we celebrate Indigenous People’s Days? Are there awards that are given out to students? What kind of physical and mental support are given to those students?”

Arrman Kyaw can be reached at [email protected]

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